It’s Monday after the SomberNationals in New Jersey, and I woke up this morning, and Scott Kalitta is still gone. And we all face the hurt all over again.
The kid who everyone in the pits used to jokingly refer to as “Eddie Munster” for his passing resemblance to the kid from the TV show grew up to be a world-class racer, a two-time NHRA world champ, a husband, a father, and, yes, a monster on the track.
I heard it said over and over again this weekend that Scott was a racer’s racer, and in that fraternity, there’s probably no bigger compliment. Scott would race you hard, but he’d race you fair. He’d hate you on the starting line but bust out the brewskis with you later that night.
I think that because he grew up in the sport, it makes it that much tougher for everyone who saw him go from an eager young wrench-twister, working on Shirley Muldowney’s car or his dad’s cars, to becoming a world champ. Guys like Don Prudhomme and Kenny Bernstein and Jim Dunn could chuckle to themselves watching this hungry young lion looking for seat time and wanting to be the next big thing and then watching him become it.
My endearing memory of Scott is seeing him walk around the pit area always wearing – at minimum – his fire boots, and usually his entire firesuit, off to the waist with the arms tied around his middle. Where some might have thought that to be the act of a poseur, I always thought Scott wore it as a badge of honor, a badge of pride. He was a legitimate fuel racer, and maybe, perhaps like Cinderella’s slipper, those boots remained on so that the dream would, too.
Although Scott did most of his winning in Top Fuel, I wholeheartedly agree with those who say that he was a Funny Car racer. He had The Look, he had the determination, he had the mind-set, and, yes, he had the swagger. Nerves of steel, for sure, with a face of concentration and a fire that burned inside him.
Mike Dunn made a point on this weekend’s ESPN2 shows to talk about how much his famous father, Connie, respected Scott’s driving ability. It’s no secret that the two sometimes, especially in Scott’s earlier years, fought like cats and dogs, but the kid did the old man proud. Connie’s a tough sumbitch, no doubt, but you know he’s hurting, and we hurt with him. It seems that we were barely able to finally tuck away our grief at the loss of Doug Hebert’s boys, and then this. It’s the old saying that parents aren’t supposed to have to bury their kids, and, as a father, I can’t even bear to begin to think about thinking of that prospect.
As any parents will tell you, when their kids take off in the family car and don’t check in at the expected time, the worry is of monumental proportions. When Scott took the family car, it wasn’t to tool down to the Dairy Queen for a Blizzard, but they both knew that and respected the risks that are endemic to any motorsport.
I wasn’t in Englishtown this weekend, and I’m glad for that. Because I was home, I was able to drive into the office late Saturday night and build a Scott Kalitta tribute page for NHRA.com. It’s a sad ritual I’ve now done three times – for Scott, and before that for Eric Medlen and Wally Parks – but it’s kind of peaceful to be sitting in my office with no one else here, thinking of ways to honor the fallen. It was unbearably hot in L.A. Saturday and because the building was empty, the air conditioning wasn’t on. It was a bajillion degrees inside, so I stole a fan from the National DRAGSTER library room, stuck it on my desk about a foot from my face, turned it on, and let the memories of Scott wash over me.
I had grabbed his rather thick collection of files from the photo library and thumbed through them and came across the images you see here, which brought a smile to my face.
Cory McClenathan and Scott were good buddies and spent 1994 – Scott’s first championship year -- trying to one-up one another in the practical-joke department.
This first photo shows Kalitta’s tow vehicle (a lot of guys registered their vehicles in Oregon then), onto which Cory Mac had attached this license-plate frame. (Because this is a family Web site, I can't show you the other license-plate frame that went unnoticed by Scott for three races, urging fans to honk at Scott for reasons I won't go into here.)
“Scott and I were great friends,” Cory Mac told me today as he sadly piloted his motorhome toward Indy, “and back in our early days, we were always at each other for number 1 and 2. Dick LaHaie was his crew chief and Jimmy Prock mine, and those two guys were great friends, too. Back then, we all used to travel with the rigs, and without sponsors to worry about, pretty much everything was fair game, and money was no object. He didn’t play fair, so I didn’t either.”
Cory Mac had a lot of help from the Oberhofers, Jim and Jon, on Kalitta’s team in pulling off the pranks.
“One of my favorite was in Atlanta, I think,” Cory recalls. “I had Simpson make me up a pair of pink parachutes, and had ‘I [heart] Cory Mac’ sewn on it. They snuck them onto Scott's car, and he didn’t see it until he got out of the car after he'd pulled them.”
There’s also this little episode, from the 1994 Englishtown race, where this aerial message was displayed to the crowd, courtesy of Cory Mac and his assistant, Ellen.
Scott, of course, had his comebacks.
“Probably the one that he got me best was when I checked into my hotel one day,” recalls McClenathan. “We always used to stay at the same hotels, and I was in the bathroom putting away my toiletries when I noticed that the shower curtain was closed. I’ve never walked into a hotel room where the shower curtain was closed, so I was already a little leery. I could make out a shadow behind the curtain. I was like, ‘You gotta be [kidding] me.’ I pulled back the curtain, and there was a cardboard stand-up of Joe Amato. It scared the crap outta me, and I jumped back 10 feet.
“Another time I had lost a bet to him for something, and he made me go up to the starting line to accept my No. 1 qualifier award at some race holding a giant pink bunny. He’d also make up bumper stickers and fake handouts of me that said 'I love Scott Kalitta’and give them to fans to bring down to me to sign. It was always good fun, and there was always a group of crew guys standing around waiting to see the reactions on our faces.”
Sunday in Englishtown was hard on everyone. You could see it on the faces of the drivers and owners and crewmembers and hear it in their voices, but it was also good to hear Jim O say that they spent a lot of time laughing about memories of Scott.
No moment was more touching moment than when Robert Hight pulled his Mustang into the right lane for his bye run when Scott should have been in the other lane. The various Kalitta teammembers still on hand stood in for Scott in his lane, some of them holding hands – Hillary Will between Jim O and Jon O – and Hight, in a stirring salute to his fallen comrade, idled his car down the lane. There were no concerns about getting lane choice for the next round, for this was about more than winning a round or a race.
I’d read hours before about Hight’s actions – of his own making, with the approval of team owner John Force and crew chief Prock --- and knew what was to come as I watched him stage on TV, but even still it choked me up something fierce. I remember a similar moment, at the 1996 U.S. Nationals, when the No. 16 qualifier, scheduled to run Blaine Johnson, who had died on the pass that pushed him to the No. 1 spot, also idled down the track in round one. That driver was Tony Schumacher, who was just getting his feet wet in a nitro dragster, at the wheel of the Peek Bros. car.
It was somehow fitting then that Schumacher won Top Fuel, and, as always, he was gracious in victory and eloquent in his comments about Scott and about how his Army friends had asked him to win the race for Connie, whose airplanes routinely carry out the sad task of bringing home the remains of our fallen soldiers.
It was fitting, too, that Tim Wilkerson won Funny Car, as his own son, Daniel, is following in his dad’s footsteps, as Scott did Connie's. It might have been a touch nicer to have Mike Neff beat "Wilk" in the final, as Neff’s crew chief is John Medlen, Eric’s father. "Wilk" dedicated the win to fathers everywhere, and we all felt a twinge.
And Greg Anderson? Also fitting as he’s associated with the Kalittas through Ken Black, who owns Anderson’s Summit hot rod and the Will-driven dragster under Connie Kalitta’s charge.
Scott left behind a loving wife and sons and a tremendous legacy. It will live on in his team and in the future wins of Hillary, who cited Scott’s tutelage as instrumental in her fuel dragster progress, and it makes me feel good to know that he was with us long enough to see her win.
It will live on anytime someone sees a driver manhandle a Funny Car back on course and gallantly stand back on the throttle.
It will live on for as long as the sport does, for as long as champions are crowned and their names go into the history books next to his.
If there’s a heaven, and I believe there is, Scott’s saddling up next to Eric Medlen right now, with Blaine and Darrell next in line, on a quarter-mile of smooth, tacky racetrack. He’s reached the finish line on this earth, but he races on for eternity, in our hearts and in our memories.
So long, Scott. And thanks.